South Sudan: Thousands in Northern Bahr el Ghazal in Desperate Need of Aid

Ashley Hamer

Thousands of people fleeing violence in the contested border area between Sudan and South Sudan are in desperate need of food, water, and medical care. Doctors Without Borders/Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF) has launched an emergency intervention to assist them as they arrive, mostly empty-handed, in Northern Bahr el Ghazal state in South Sudan, where the humanitarian situation is already dire.

According to local authorities, 1,542 households have arrived in Aweil North County in Northern Bahr el Ghazal state since October 2014. As the numbers increase, most of those arriving have told MSF that they are fleeing violence and militia attacks in the contested border region of Abyei. Some people have come from as far as Unity and Upper Nile states, where opposition forces have been clashing with South Sudanese government forces since the beginning of last year. They left with nothing and walked for weeks to reach this scorched corner of South Sudan, where they have settled in the already existing camps for internally displaced people (IDPs).

“When militia attacked the area I fled from my village," says Abok Mawein, who fled Abiemnhom in Unity State and is currently living in a camp in Calek, Aweil North. "They attacked in the night and I lost my children and husband in the chaos. Until now I don’t know if they are alive or not."

The food, water, and health care needs are significant. Many new arrivals are only surviving on water from hand-dug wells and there is a dire lack of latrines and sanitation facilities. MSF has launched an emergency intervention to assist the newly displaced population, providing medical services, and distributing essential items such as jerry cans to transport water, cooking pots, soap, and blankets.

Families with children between six months and five years of age also receive a food supplement to help stave off malnutrition. To date, 1,441 families have benefited from these ongoing emergency distributions.

Alongside the provision of treatment for malaria, respiratory infections, and diarrhea, MSF is also providing vaccinations for children under the age of five. A rapid vaccination campaign against measles has been completed in Pour Akon camp, where 533 children have been immunized. However, the lack of proper water and sanitation facilities is increasing the risk of waterborne diseases.

In one camp, MSF teams treated 42 children for acute watery diarrhea in a single week. In their visit to the camp at Puor Akon, MSF reproductive health teams provided antenatal care to 59 women, for whom this was their first antenatal consultation despite being in late stages of pregnancy. 

“The humanitarian situation in Aweil North is already dire and access to health care is a chronic problem," says MSF project coordinator Andrew Zadel. "Add thousands of newly displaced people and the situation will deteriorate even more."

The newly arriving families build basic huts from sticks and grass, and must share the scarce water and food resources of the host community, many of whom arrived in the area after fleeing violence themselves. The 2014 harvest was unusually poor due to little rain, and those already present in the camps do not have enough food to share with the displaced who have arrived since October.

In order to survive they are forced to gather and eat wild tamarind fruits and the leaves of the akuor tree. Some collect desert dates, spending hours using sticks to crack open the fruits so the inner seed can be boiled and eaten, while others collect firewood and make grass mats to sell in the market in order to earn money to buy food.

“So far we are providing assistance in 10 of the 11 camps in Aweil North," explains Zadel. "We are planning to carry out more distributions of essential items in the newly established camp, but more assistance is urgently needed for this vulnerable population. We are worried that the nutritional situation of these people will deteriorate in the coming months if significant assistance is not provided. We need other organizations here to help this neglected population."

MSF is the only international NGO with a consistent presence in North Aweil. MSF operates a primary health care clinic and outreach community services in the area, which includes Calek and several other IDP camps. 

MSF outreach teams attend to expectant mothers in remote Jar Akol village, north-east of Pamat.
Ashley Hamer